Reading between the years
BY DAMON SMITH
Are Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, and David Crosby too old to rock? John Strausbaugh, editor of the New York Press and author of the bitchy Rock ítil You Drop: The Decline from Rebellion to Nostalgia (Verso, 259 pages, $25), thinks so. He calls them "colostomy rockers" and suggests that apart from being an embarrassment to themselves, such aged musicians betray the origins of their music. Didnít Jagger once say he wouldnít be performing "Satisfaction" when he was 42? Were the Who already a sellout when they sang "Hope I die before I get old" in 1966?
Strausbaugh, a boomer himself, has a few bones to pick with his generation. Itís not just the outsize greed of rockers like Bowie and Springsteen that piques him but the nostalgia of boomers who insist that rock mattered in the í60s, that it was an agent of social change, that it was good and righteous and revolutionary in contrast to the craven commercial product of the present. These are the same middle-aged folks, he laments, who are plunking down $80 to $150 to see the "geriatric" Rolling Stones, Little Feat, the Allman Brothers, or whoever are calling themselves "Lynyrd Skynyrd" these days. The same folks who support "socially responsible" hippie entrepreneurs like Ben & Jerry and buy into the hip-capitalist boomer-centrism of Rolling Stone ó those former Vietnam protesters who cheered Bushís Gulf intervention, voted for Bill Clinton, and supported Clintonís air war in Kosovo.
Rock ítil You Drop is an acid-tongued reckoning with the legacy and forgotten promises of the original rock generation. Strausbaugh doesnít mince words when it comes to rolling out his thesis: "Rock is youth music. It is best played by young people, for young people, in a setting that is specifically exclusionary of their parents and anyone their parentsí age." But he doesnít pretend to be immune to romanticizing the past. Heís partial to the idea that in the early days of rock, music mattered more than money and helped instigate the cultural revolution. He even admits to chastising a Gen XĖer or two for having missed out on the authentic sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll experience. Still, he resists the idea that rock and roll is an artifact. He has sharp words for middle-aged music writers who pretend to have an understanding of hip-hop, rave culture, and the latest trends in post-rock. They donít, he argues, and canít, and should stick to writing books about Elvis and Dylan, or reviewing new albums by dinosaurs like Marty Balin.
For Strausbaugh, the self-parodic reunion tours of í60s and í70s acts that feed off their fansí "empty nostalgia" are merely a symptom of an appropriation that began early on. His interviews with critic Ellen Willis, the Fugsí Tuli Kupferberg, and MC5 manager John Sinclair draw a bead on the circumstances that led to the decline of the culture of rebellion and the beginning of corporate rock. "It wasnít just the hairlines that receded: the political commitment, the anger, the will to change that permeated the original music was also gone. . . . We started out wanting to revolutionize the world and all we ended up doing was tinkering with the establishment."
Many rock-and-roll icons, he points out, have become captains of industry or billionaire entrepreneurs: Richard Branson, Jann Wenner, Mick Jagger. "The Rolling Stone that entered the twenty-first century," he asserts, "was so much more timid, so much more pandering, so much more market-researched than its youthful self, and so very far behind the curve of contemporary music and culture that it was regularly being scooped by its competition." Institutions like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are the very antithesis of the spirit of rock and roll, he insists, and his description of roaming its galleries is not only humorous and poignant but gets to the heart of what sticks in his craw: "If thereís any spirit of rock and roll inhabiting those guitars, itís begging you to smash the glass, pull that ax down off the wall, strap it on, plug it into a big stack of Marshalls, and fucking play the thing."
Rock musicians, he argues, should come with an expiration date. They should eventually find a more age-appropriate and self-respecting outlet for their creative impulses, like playing jazz or the blues, or even reinventing themselves as pop stars. "If this is cruel and Ďageist,í " Strausbaugh writes, "itís a cruelty and ageism built into the art form." Thatís because rock music, as he sees it, is an expression of youthful rebelliousness that belongs body and soul to a new breed calling themselves the Go, Sleater-Kinney, White Stripes, and Dropkick Murphys. Rock is not dead, Strausbaugh avers, it only seems that way to people of his generation.
Issue Date: November 15 - 22, 2001